Audio Log I

Modern music is mixed and mastered too loudly.

The old process of making music:

  1. Instruments are recorded separately, with a mic placed a small distance away. The distance and any echo effect captured is called natural reverb. Jazz bands and some older rock bands recorded together, live. This was done on the older Black Sabbath records.
  2. Instruments are mixed on a 24 bit format, with frequencies ranging from 96kHz to as much as 192kHz. Of course the human hearing range is 20-20kHz, so a lot of what was recorded was just noise. 24 bits was like the word length, basically the more bits you had the more information you can mix in. The same way your PCs work today. CDs and mp3s are 16 bit.
  3. Since the vinyl was a physical, analog medium, an engineer would be hired to ensure that the songs were literally of the right size to fit on to the vinyl pressing. Making the songs louder would take more information on an analog medium, so they would take up more space on the vinyl. To save money, music was engineered to be soft.

The vinyl has a lot of flaws. Any scratch on its surface would come out in the music. Having a frequency range of 192kHz was pointless since most of the frequencies recorded were ambient noise. Frequencies below 40hz were hard to capture on the format (hence why most older songs barely have bass).

The CD was introduced around the late 70s. The CD is at 16 bit and 44.1kHz, covering the main hearing range from as low as 20Hz all the way up to 20kHz. For some reason, the CD remains at 44.1kHz up to today, which means a choppy resampling of music from the older frequency ranges. Only the DVD is at 48kHz, which makes it easy to just half or quarter the older frequencies (96 or 192kHz). Also, since all CD players and playback devices were engineered at 16 bit then, nobody bothered to really make 24 bit players or CDs. It wasn’t just the medium that changed- recording changed too.

The new process of making music:

  1. Music is now recorded digitally. There is no mic unless you record acoustic and vocals. The processing, however, is all digital. Logically, there is barely any natural reverb either.
  2. A lot of effects and compression now available since music can be digitally altered. Individual instrumental tracks and vocals can now be processed on their own before being mixed together with the rest of the instruments. No coincidence that musicians started auto-tuning their mistakes digitally around this period.
  3.  The lower frequency range meant that bass was more audible. The new frequency and recording allowed for a cleaner, more polished sound without random noises or ambiance.
  4. The concept of digital space is very different from analog space. While there is a limit of 700mb, loudness was no longer an issue. The time limit was the bigger issue, so as long the album was less than 45 minutes, the engineer could do a lot more than he wanted.

Compression at the mastering stage isn’t necessarily bad. It adds warmth and richness to the music if applied properly.

The irony now is that the medium that allowed for a softer, more detailed sound is being abused to make louder, harsher sounding records. When music aired on the radio, they had to have the same assumed loudness, otherwise the listener would have to constantly turn down the volume for louder records and turn up the volume for softer records. The solution was crude; simply compress all music to sound relatively the same (at least in terms of volume).

Let’s look at the spectograms of two separate songs:

01. Fear Of A Blank Planet
Fear Of A Blank Planet by Porcupine Tree

The spectogram has multiple peaks. The range between the highest peak and the lowest peak is dynamic range. While not the best indicator of how good the music will sound, I have observed that the most pleasant sounding records, even in the metal genre, often have very dynamic masters. On top of that, the orange space is referred to as headspace. The more headspace a record has, the softer it will sound, giving you room to add in EQ choices that will not make it sound unbearable. Goes without saying that dynamic masters work well with complex sound system setups. For reference, this track was ripped from the 5.1 surround DVD-Audio and downmixed to stereo with the Channel Mixer plugin on foobar. The dynamic range for this track is DR12.

Here is the spectogram for Lamb Of God’s Desolation:

02. Desolation
Desolation by Lamb Of God

It’s truly a desolate sight. There is no headroom, no peaks and no variation in the loudness, meaning everything is squashed to your ears. This isn’t to say that there is a lot of detail- a lot of the mix is noise frequencies at the midrange and a bloated mid-bass. The dynamic range for this track is DR5, which is not even that squashed by today’s standards.

Of course I am using two different songs from two very different genres to exaggerate a point, but go on to the dynamic range database and look up music you like. Older Metallica records went up to DR12. Slayer’s Reign In Blood, which I would consider the gold standard for thrash metal production, is DR12 on CD. The older Cannibal Corpse albums clock in at DR10-DR12 and still sound heavy and visceral.

A mistake I used to make was thinking that vinyls had better sounding music because they registered a higher dynamic range. Not true. Since all vinyls contain noise, not just from the vinyl but from the needle playing it, the noise will be mistaken by the dynamic range meter as a super small peak. As such, the program will detect a high dynamic range, even if the same master for the CD was used for the vinyl.

The only way to know if the vinyl had an uncompressed master is to actually ask the vinyl pressing company itself. The guys at Metal-Fi have a forum thread on dedicated vinyl masters for metal records.

I am now embarking on ‘restoring’ badly mastered tracks, having seen some amazingly repaired songs floating about on the Russian internet. It’s been difficult, since wave peaks that are lost in the master are honestly lost forever, but audio technology has improved vastly today. I use iZotope RX 5, with the Neutron plugin. Primarily a mix and master software, it features a dynamic equalizer that has given some astonishing results, with the software using complex logarithms to ‘guess’ the lost frequencies. The results still aren’t perfect, but I have already achieved a lot.

Here’s the spectogram of a remastered Desolation:

02. Desolation declipped
The results of my messing about with the equalizer.

Reducing gain and increasing headspace is easy, its guessing the right frequency to increase or decrease that’s been proving to be difficult. From the picture, you can already see that the new peaks are way too high, but I have achieved the jagged peaks that are prominent on more dynamic records. I now know that most metal records have too much mid-bass (the irony that reducing bass increases the audibility of the bassline!), too little treble and an extremely pointless noise at around 800hz.

This is the first of my “audio-logs”. I don’t intend to be an actual producer, but I hope I can find a way to make my music sound like it did when it was recorded.

The Ward

I am going away, I am going down
I am going away, I am going down

Sifting through a memory before it fades away
Adolescent secrecy, a million words astray

I can’t remember happiness, I thrive within the dark
The security of a loneliness is a veil that keeps my calm

By the way, I’m doing fine
I have a place to stay, just behind the sunshine
And by the way, I don’t need sympathy
I have a place to lay, I have more than you can see

I walk the streets alone at night, it helps to ease my mind
I lay me down come the morning light and leave all woes behind

I definitely didn’t care much for the entire album, but this one song stuck out then. And it’s become one of my favourite Opeth songs.

Earphones (IEMs) up to S$150

Earphones (IEMs) up to S$150
These are from my Facebook notes that I published a month ago. Be wary that what I consider a good sound signature may not necessarily be the same for you. This is more of a journal entry for myself.

Part 1:
My earphones finally died , a pair of JVC HA-FXZ100s I bought from Stereo. I still have a pair of revived (for now) Final Audio Adagio IIIs, another Japanese earphone I purchased from Jaben in my army days. The JVCs lasted me close to 3 years, decent enough for an abusive owner like me. Anyway, I spent the last couple of days looking up and listening to earphones within this reasonable price range, and thought it would be useful for others who may also be looking for earphones. For this note, I will only talk about in-ear monitors (IEMs)- the kind with earbuds that you insert into your ears. I have a pair of Beyerdynamic DTX800s at home, and will probably only do a note on headphones (those with earmuffs you put over your ears) once this pair dies.
First off a basic breakdown of the specs you often see on earphone boxes:
  1. Drivers- There are two types of drivers for earphones, (i) Balanced Armature and (ii) Dynamic.
  2. Balanced Armature drivers => your earphone usually has more than one of these, since one set of frequencies for one driver is going to give you a limitted sound. Unfortunately, most earphones won’t have three drivers for all three sets of frequencies- high, mid and low. Most earphones, especially at this price range, typically only have two- the high and the low. This gives it extra bass, extra treble, with the mids really lacking. This phenomena is called a V-shaped sound, because graphing the range of frequencies gives you a v-shaped graph. This is the true plague for most earphones, the reason you get blunt bass and sharp piercing treble and almost no mids- a hollow sound, if you will. If done right, balanced armature drivers are actually clearer than dynamic drivers, but you would be paying close to a thousand dollars.
  3. Dynamic drivers- muddier than the former, and since the drivers are bigger to accommodate the larger range of frequencies, the earphones are bigger. They aren’t as clear as BA drivers, but are cheaper, more durable, and more suited for this price range. Of course there are other factors that affect the drivers’ sound, so do make sure to listen to your earphone before deciding whether to buy it.
  4. Open back vs isolation: This is more commonly used for headphones, but applies to a significant degree on IEMs too. Isolated IEMs are marketted as noise-cancelling earphones. I generally dislike this type of earphones, as the music lacks the ‘live’ feel that a less isolated earphone would offer. The tradeoff, obviously, is that surrounding noise bleeds into your earphones and vice versa. Again, this affects headphones more, so I would generally advise against noise-cancelling earphones. Again, this one is preference.
  5. Impedance- this just means resistance. You should remember the formula from secondary school physics. Anyway, 16-32 ohms is called low impedance, in that they don’t need so much power. That means these are suited for your plebian smartphones and what not. On the other hand, a high impedance earphone with about 100 ohms would need far more power, either in the form of an amplifier or a sound system with an audio jack. Using a high impedance earphone on your iPhone would result in a very soft sound, and your battery will be drained.
  6. Driver length- honestly just that. Generally a bigger driver can accommodate more sound, but too big and high frequencies are lost… and engineering can always change the process. Anyway the preferred measurements given by experts is 6.5mm for IEMs.
  7. Sensitivity- by right, a more sensitive earphone is supposed to play louder than a less sensitive earphone, but since manufacturers aren’t consistent with their measurements, this one is hard to pinpoint. I wouldn’t worry about this anyway.
I went for some tests in Stereo today, here are my quick thoughts on some of the models I tried within the price range. I use an iPod Classic 160GB, with most of my songs belonging in the metal genre. These songs are already EQ-ed to be louder and bassier, so I am looking for a earphone that is relatively balanced, but with tight, punchy bass that is only present when it’s in the song. I don’t want to hear my atmospheric songs with extra bass.
  • Sennheiser CX 3.00 (S$89): Very balanced sound, with tight punchy bass. Exactly what I was looking for, and though the sound is flat, I would have honestly settled for this if I hadn’t found better ones.
  • Audio Technica ATH M50 (S$248): These are headphones. Shopkeeper gave me these by mistake when I requested for the IEMs below, but I was curious anyway. These are not worth the money, my Beyerdynamic cans at home sounded better and there were $50 cheaper. Don’t get me wrong, these are good headphones, just not worth the price.
  • Audio Technica ATH IM50 (S$88): Slightly edged out by the CX3.00 above, quite a balanced sound but bass didn’t hit where it was supposed to. Felt like it was for generic music, didn’t offer much on sound. Classic v-shaped sound- highs and lows (to a lesser extent) are there, but no mids. Acoustic stuff sounded great, though.
  • Audio Technica ATH IM70 (s$138): If the bass wasn’t strong enough on the IM50, the bass is too bloated on this one. It’s blunt and it’s like pummeling your ears with a hammer. I took it out immediately. Again, maybe this was meant for bass-light pop songs, but it sounded terrible with my songs.
  • Marshall Mode (S$99): Wasn’t expecting much on this one but was pleasantly surprised. It’s not bassy, but has a huge soundstage and was very light on the ears despite the name. Have a feeling this would be heavenly for those who listen to classic rock, or 70s music in general. Again, not bad, maybe just too limited for my music styles.
  • Fischer Tandem (S$98): Flat out terrible. Hollow, V-shaped sound. Took it off immediately.
  • Fischer Audio Omega Twin (S$98): A far better version than the Tandem, again, v-shaped sound is unavoidable. I still wouldn’t buy these.
  • Klipsch R6 ($139): Had the best fit among all the earphones I tried today. The bass is thick and suffocating, and not punchy at all. I could feel the low end on guitars, but the drums were buried, which I found very odd. Maybe stick to home theatre speakers for this one.
  • RHA S600I (S$128): Great with highs, acoustic guitars. Pretty much mediocre on everything else.
  • Mee Audio M6 Pro (S$79): These were so insignificant I didn’t even bother to ask myself why. Probably why it’s the cheapest here.
  • JVC HA-FX3X (S$99): It’s hard to put a finger on it, but Japanese brands nail audio on IEMs. I expected this to sound subpar because it’s a cheaper model than my original JVCs- and it is. It isn’t clear and it focuses on the bass. However it compensates so well on the bass that it might as well be a separate entity; the bass is so tight and thunderous that it makes every other ‘bassy’ earphone sound like pussies. And this might be too much bass for normal listeners (and it’s definitely a no-no for audiophiles), but it hits the right spots on all my metal songs. The highs and mids aren’t badly compromised. I wear my IEMs for daily commute and in the gym (since I already have a headphone for clarity and soundstage at home). If I can’t find any other better IEMs at the IT Fair on Thursday, I am buying these for sure.
There are two other brands that I would like to check at the IT Fair on Thursday before confirming my purchase- Brainwavz and Sudio, a Swedish brand that claims to sell earphones at a third of their value compared to their counterparts from other brands. Here’s a list of earphones I read about online but didn’t manage to find in the store:
  • Yamaha EPH-100
  • Astrotec AM800
  • Philips TX2
  • HiFiMAN RE-400
  • Philips Fidelio S1
  • Sudio Vasa
  • V-Sonic GR07
PS: For those who don’t have the budget but were reading these anyway, I would highly recommend the Creative EP-630 at about $30. These won’t touch the level of the earphones here, but it’s worth the $30. You get a lot more clarity and depth than any other earphone at that price range… though JVCs low tier earphones might be better.
PSS: My current model(s) are: (i) JVC HA-FXZ100, which is a triple driver earphone and the best IEM I owned. I do intend to get a similarly great sounding pair in a couple of years, when I am working and my budget is larger. I bought it at about $250 for a heavily discounted price three years back (ii) Final Audio Adagio III, which are a dynamic driver pair of earphones. Very powerful sound, with lots of bass and sibilant highs. It’s v-shaped, but at a tolerable amount. Not as meaty as the JVCs, but still a good buy. I got these at S$129 at Jaben, but good luck finding these anymore. Jaben sells Adagio IIs and Adagio IVs (they have a good relationship with the CEO of Final Audio), but neither of these other models sounded as good as the Adagio III.

Part 2:
Thanks to Jake and Caleb for pointing out this shop after yesterday’s post. Before getting on with some impressions of the IEMs I auditioned, here’s a warning I want to put up: The songs on my iPod are mostly Apple lossless. Some of these are even digitized vinyl rips, so the quality of my song files are very different from someone who’s using mp3. This is because mp3s cut of the higher frequencies and lower frequencies of an audio clip, leaving behind the bare minimums of the song. I tried Shiva’s Hippo Pro1 (Jaben’s flagship brand) on my iPod today and it sounded like shit. Seriously. Absolutely shitty. So DO NOT take my words here as gospel.
Here’s the list of earphones I tested at LendMeUrEars, a small little shop at the fourth floor of Adelphi that mainly sells Chinese earphones. Yes, I laughed at the idea, but the results shocked me.
  • V-Sonic GR07 (S$125 for classic, S$163 for bass): I can see why this is highly recommended. It’s absolutely bright and favours the highs- so acoustics and generally anything that’s ethereal/upbeat will sound magnificent on these. There’s also a ton of clarity- ghost notes from Death were clearly audible. However…. the bass is lacking. It’s there, it’s just not good enough. The bass versions compromise a bit of the clarity, and they aren’t as powerful as, say, the JVCs. Still, I wouldn’t write these off easily. In some ideal world where I am rich, I would have these in addition to other earphones. These sounded the best with acoustic stuff… stuff which I don’t listen to in commute. Another interesting thing about these earphones was that the soundstage is dictated by the song, so badly produced songs will not sound as good on these earphones. Very neutral.
  • Astrotec AX-7 (S$144): Again on the bright side. They weren’t as clear as the V-Sonics, but the highs were more sparkly. Barely any bass, but the bassline is clearly audible on this one. Seperation between instruments very noticeable on this one, though.
  • Fidue A65 (S$81): These were the first balanced IEMs I tried… and it was frankly quite disappointing. It’s neutral, but no character. Not enough bass on metal sounds, not enough highs on acoustics. Electronic music is fine.
  • Fidue A71 (S$128): For an increase in price, I didn’t actually see any noticeable difference between this and the A65. At most, the bass is a little more pronounced, but it’s still balanced. Ha. So bad songs don’t sound as bad, but good songs don’t sound as good as they should be, either. Perhaps balanced earphones aren’t that great at this price range. Might work well with an amp, so those with that option might still want to try.
  • Macaw GT100s (S$102): These were marketed as clear earphones with emphasis on highs, but there’s just enough low bass to differentiate it from the others. Again, not the best bass, but it combines tight reverb with a very wide soundstage. Very warm sounding. I would say this a tiny bit better version of the Marshall Mode. It’s an interesting sound… possible great for 70s rock songs that have acoustic sections but are still angry for some reason.
  • Sun ME-1 (S$90): These were the last earphones I tried and I was quite tired by the end of the session, but these were pleasantly surprising. It’s V-shaped, which is expected for earphones of this range, but the emphasis was on the highs. Still, a warm sounding pair for those who cannot go above S$100.
  • HiSound Audio Wooduo 2 (S$124): These and the AD01s gave me a lot of headache, because these were amazing. The bass is only second to the JVC FX3X, and it still packs a punch in the highs and mids. Very powerful and really bring all metal to life. The extended bass gives an illusion of a wide soundstage, and there’s still quite a bit of detail (I could hear the badly recorded snare of black metal songs). These might be too muddy for other genres, but I seriously considered these.
  • Alpha & Delta AD01 (S$130 for normal, S$150 for upgraded cable): I made a mistake of listening to the upgraded version and the Wooduos before trying the normal version. The normal version is clear and has some rich, low bass, but it’s completely trumped by the upgraded cable version, which are, for now, the clear winner from this shop. It’s incredible layered, has clarity (though not as sparkly as the first few earphones here) and the bass is mostly in the lower region- meaning on the drums and bass guitars only. So in comparison, the highs still sound really good. Although it’s supposed to be v-shaped, these earphones really sounded on all three frequency ranges. It swallowed every song from every genre I threw at it- electronic, atmospheric, all kinds of metal, acoustic passages. The signature sound is rather consistent, the bass was deep yet subtle. It was incredible to hear any earphone handle both regions so well, and it had a fantastic fit. I actually said “Wow” to myself several times while listening to these, and kept switching between these and the Wooduos to really see which came out better. The problem with the Wooduos is their limited versatility- these go well with anything.
So I’ve pretty much made my mind regarding my purchase. Tomorrow, I will check out the Brainwavs and Sudio earphones, but I seriously doubt either of these brands could touch what heard here today. I haven’t demo-ed the Ostry KC06As because the shop didn’t have any sets for demo.
Bonus round: I went down to Jaben just to see what else they could offer. Only things I tried were the Shure SE215 at S$138, which I still don’t like (most of my music sounds lifeless on it and the v-shape was very apparent) and some Sony DR-XB22IPs at S$85, which sounded slightly better than the Shures with v-shape, but was terrible with vocals… which is a first for me. Sony, what are you doing, Sony?!
PS: Apparently Final Audio Adagio IIIs are on sale at S$98… they are fun but I think these new earphones I found sound better for the price.

Part 3:

Decided to settle on Alpha & Delta AD01 today. Tried some other earpieces today:

Creative In-Ear Aurvana Live series: Sounded like shit, even though the OEM headphones were quite decent. No idea why, maybe they weren’t designed with lossless stuff in mind.

Sudio Vasa: Honestly, decent, but I thought the China models blew it out of the competition. This is one of the better Western models. Warm sound but too neutral.

Brainwavz: The S5s weren’t available for demos, so I tried Jive ($50 sports earphones), S1 and S3. The Jives were okay, but very mediocre. S1 and S3 didn’t seem to hit the bass. Did have the highs, though. Could be the terrible setting (loud and noisy in the Convention Centre), but I immediately knew these won’t work for me.

So, the AD01s, first flagship model by the shop LendMeUrEars. I know there are flaws (not strong highs, too much decay on bass) but these are excellent sounds for all my death and doom metal, and bring life to a lot of the old songs I own that have little bass. Sound is hollow for now, since these are going to need a heavy burn in for the dual titanium dynamic drives, but I am very very happy with this purchase.

I spoke to the owner and he told me that while this model was designed for ultra lows (which this model hits without having too fat a bass tone), the next model, the AD02, will be having a high-bias, clear sound signature, so look out for that if you’re into treble heavy music. Otherwise, these are the best earphone’s I have owned at this price range.

Hope all that I have posted has been useful for those with interest in buying new IEMs. look forward to buying better models when I start to work, and to replace my home OEMs in the near future.